Stress—Its’ Not That Simple

NPR recently ran a weeklong series on stress. It was a concentrated dose of a broader public conversation that’s been going on about the science of stress. The series mentioned, but could have done more to emphasize, that not all stress is created equal.

I want to pause and consider the issue from a communications angle. The science of stress is an important body of cross-disciplinary research with lessons to teach us about designing better programs and policies. But the ability the science of stress has to actually improve outcomes is about more than neuro-biology and developmental psychology—it’s about how this science is communicated and about how people understand stress.

Even with the most immediate and direct programmatic applications, good science will stay among a small circle of scientists without good communications. The way people understand stress influences the ability of the science of stress to be translated into policy and practice.

So how do people understand “stress”? And how does this affect the ability of science principles to inform our public policies? FrameWorks has been studying how people understand stress and how these understandings can be shifted, channeled and expanded to make room for science messages. We have found that people have and work with two dueling models of stress. The first, and decidedly more dominant model in American culture is the Nietzsche-ism that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This way of thinking leads people to view stress as a compulsory part of strength-building—the stuff we have to fight against in order to build character. It’s from this perspective that calls to reduce stress in the lives of children appear just one more counter-productive form of the modern coddle: “I had stress and I turned out fine.”

The other flavor of stress is decidedly more recessive but still part of the mix of American culture. This is the opposite understanding—that stress is bad for you; that it distracts, pushes down on and otherwise impinges on our ability to do well.

The problem is that there is truth in both of these models. But neither one is right when applied in isolation, which is exactly how people like to apply them. People say that stress is either good or it’s bad. The science of stress, on the other hand, is all about shades of grey— different kinds of stress can be good or bad.

From this perspective, the job of communicating the science is not about making things simple, but in making complexity understandable. Communications must find a way of helping people hold, organize and apply both of their models of stress at the same time. And this is what FrameWorks has been doing with metaphor. Over the last 10 years we have found that exposure to the Toxic Stress metaphor helps people bring both the good and bad of stress thinking together such that the science of stress and its complexities and nuances make sense.

There are three main kinds of stress that children can experience—there’s positive stress, tolerable stress, and toxic stress.

Positive stress is the types of challenges that can actually help children develop—like facing a challenging social situation or preparing for a really hard test.

Tolerable stress is things that could damage development, but that are buffered by having supportive positive relationships—like having strong family support when a loved one dies.

And then there is Toxic Stress. Toxic Stress happens when a child experiences severe and ongoing stress—like extreme poverty, abuse, or violence in the community—without consistent supportive relationships. Toxic stress affects the way that the brain develops and can lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and both physical and mental health.

Our research has shown that presenting people with a taxonomy of stress, with places for both of their existing models, is an effective tool in translating the science of stress. The answer is not simplifying thinking, but rather making cognitive space for complexity.

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